It's natural for children to feel anxious or afraid about some things as they are growing up. It's got to do with our hard-wired responses to danger: things like heights, or strangers, or large unfriendly animals.
The problems come when a child doesn't learn to distinguish between a normal situation and a dangerous one, and the fear becomes more lasting and interferes with normal development.
So how do you help your child with this sort of anxiety?
Before you do anything else, you need to acknowledge your child's feelings and help her express them. Young children don't know how to put words to what they are feeling, and older children often don't want to, for fear of being ridiculed.
Your task here as a parent, is just to listen to what your child is telling you. You can help by asking questions like, “Are you feeling afraid of the dark?” … or whatever it is. Children sometimes find it easier to describe physical sensations, like “butterflies in the tummy” or “scary feeling inside”.
What you are doing here is establishing a language so you can communicate with your child about feelings. This is the first step in helping your child distance herself from her emotional state, instead of letting it control her. You are not going to minimise, or try to talk her out of what she is feeling, or making it worse. It's simply accepting that these feelings are there, and you (and she) can deal with it. Because one of the most difficult things about anxiety is feeling afraid of the anxiety itself, and doing whatever you can to avoid it.
This brings us to the next step:
Yes, she feels scared... she is shaking... she is having trouble breathing... or whatever else is happening. But that doesn't mean she needs to let it control her.
Your job here, as a parent, is to support her in facing the situation. Hold her hand, or pick her up, and go outside into the dark... or get close to that dog... or sit with her for a while at kindergarten. For an older child who is anxious about school, or doing an exam, or talking in front of the class, or going into a social situation, it is not so easy. You can't actually go with her into those situations. What you can do instead, is to help her with coping strategies such as encouraging self-talk or relaxing breathing. You can also help her rehearse in her mind, or even in a role-play, for situations such as speaking in front of the class, or going into a social situation that is difficult for her.
And when she does face the situation, you can help even more:
Praise (and other reward) works a lot better than punishment or ridicule to change behaviour. And this is what you are aiming to do: to get your child to change the way she responds to an anxiety-provoking situation. Once you have acknowledged that she is scared, and that she can face the situation anyway, and she does, then she has done something truly brave and grown-up! So tell her...
Of course, it's not always that easy to follow these steps. You are going to need a lot of patience, empathy, and ingenuity. And you are human too... you have other demands on your time and energy!
If you want some help, and a great kid-friendly program to help your child deal with anxiety, then have a look at Turnaround. As well as an audio program to take your child through all these steps, it includes some great tips to help parents as well.
"Turnaround has been amazing!"
"The program is the best money I have ever spent and I cannot recommend it highly enough to others with anxious children. Thank you so much."
-Stephanie, Great Britain.
"It was honestly a life saving program for my daughter and my family."
"I'm very thankful to have found the Turnaround program for my 8-year-old daughter. She was having severe panic attacks and since doing the program, has not had one. She enjoyed the process and I was impressed with the way the program was written and with the characters… I highly recommend it."
"We had great success with the Turnaround program."
"Our six year old was having a terrible time with starting kindergarten. We were prompted by his teacher to seek professional help. We first went to the Psychology Department for appointments as we, the parents, both work at a well known clinic. We found the appointments to be unhelpful and “over his head”. They seemed to focus on us, the parents, and were not on the level of our child at all. My Husband found the CDs online and we ordered them. Our son loved them and could really relate to the characters and messages. He still asks to listen to them and he is entirely over his fear of school."
"Thanks for creating Turnaround. We think the programme is BRILLIANT!!"
-Sarah from Australia.
"We recently started Turnaround with my 5-year-old daughter. She is a bit young for the program, so we have had to adapt it a little bit, but she is a different child than she was a month ago!"
-Cindy C., South Carolina.